Monday, January 31, 2022

Haitian groups choose transitional leader (Jan. 31, 2022)

A group of Haitian civil society and political organizations chose former prime minister Fritz Alphonse Jean to head the country as interim president for two years. The vote was carried out by 42 voting members of the National Transitional Council (CNT) out of 44 (after the withdrawal of the Famni Lavalas party).  Delegates also chose former Senate president Steven Benoit as interim-prime minister. The vote was not recognized by acting-prime minister Ariel Henry.

The CNT stems from the Montana Accord, a political agreement signed by a coalition of more than 1,000 civil society organizations and political parties, that seeks to create a two-year transition process. The transition, under the newly reached consensus, would be led by five presidents, appointed by three different structures in the country, an appointed prime minister to run the daily affairs, and a ministerial cabinet coming from signatories of the accord.

Last week Henry rejected a separate attempt to form a transitional government by the "Haiti Unity Summit," which also chose Jean to head an interim government. Henryt -- appointed by President Jovenel Moïse just ahead of the president's assassination last July -- said the country's next president will be "elected freely and democratically by the majority of the Haitian people," but did not say when. 

Jean said he planned to speak with organizations and political parties that are not part of the Montana Accord, and that he had already spoken with former senator Jean Edgard Leblanc.

February 7 marks the end of Moïse's presidential term, a date that could provide Henry’s adversaries with a pretext to challenge his fragile authority, and which could develop into a new flashpoint in Haiti's prolonged political, social and security crisis, reported the Miami Herald earlier this month.

Regional Relations
  • U.S. authorities banned former Haitian senator and presumed current presidential candidate Jean-Charles Moïse from entering the country, last week, likely in response to his contacts with Venezuela's government, including high-level Maduro official Diosdado Cabello, the reputed head of a Venezuelan drug cartel. Cabello and Maduro both face drug trafficking charges in the United States, and have bounties on their heads of $10 million and $15 million, respectively. (Miami Herald)

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sparked criticism with his plan to maintain a scheduled visit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin despite the escalating military crisis along the Ukrainian border, reports the Guardian.
News Briefs

  • Argentina's preliminary deal to postpone loan repayment installments to the IMF takes the "noose off the country's neck," though there's "long road ahead" according to President Alberto Fernández. (Telam, see Friday's briefs.) The specifics remain to be determined, but the key points of the deal include no swift spending cuts, and a gradual reduction in the fiscal deficit by 2024 without austerity measures, reports the Washington Post.

  • The clash between a leftist Argentine government that values social spending and the IMF pushing for budget cuts is a fairly standard script. ("What’s unusual is the size of the IMF package being renegotiated, the speed at which it went sour and the complications posed by the pandemic, which hammered an already staggering economy," as Bloomberg put it recently.

  • Both supporters of the Fernández administration and some of its critics agree that the 2018 $57 billion deal with the IMF was a bad idea -- it's generally accepted that geopolitical concerns trumped economic considerations in the record-breaking loan.  In fact, the IMF acknowledged errors in a self-assessment of the deal. (Washington Post.) Nonetheless, the mainstream narrative remains negatively focused on the Argentine government's lack of enthusiasm to pay back what was, by all accounts, an ill-considered deal.
  • Landslides and flooding caused by heavy rains killed at least 19 people in Brazil’s São Paulo state yesterday. The waters forced some 500,000 families from their homes over the weekend, reports the Associated Press. After flying over affected areas, governor João Doria announced he  would direct $2.7 million to help the 10 most affected cities and 645 municipalities in Brazil’s most populous state—home to 46 million people, reports AFP.
  • Chilean protesters marched against immigration in the northern city of Iquique, and some groups destroyed the belongings of migrants in street camps, an echo of angry protests last year when camps were burned. (Reuters)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... 

Friday, January 28, 2022

Harris in Honduras (Jan. 28, 2022)

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris' presence at Xiomara Castro's inauguration in Honduras yesterday was a show of support for a government the U.S. believes could be a key ally in tackling "root causes" of migration from the region. (See yesterday's post.)

Castro has promised to fight systemic corruption, which the U.S. considers an underlying factor pushing people to leave the country, reports the Washington Post. After the two met yesterday, Harris said she welcomed Castro’s focus on countering corruption, and they discussed their shared concerns with gender-based violence in Honduras.

But Harris' visit was also a message to Central American leaders in the midst of various forms of democratic backsliding, reports the New York Times

More Regional Relations
  • Any improvements in Venezuela depend on negotiations between the Maduro government and the political opposition -- a process in which the U.S. could a key supporting role, according to a new analysis by the United States Institute for Peace, which suggests that putting sanctions relief on the negotiating table is "the only real leverage that could create the conditions for substantial progress." Moving forward international actors should support: local solutions; opposition unity; and the development of a semi-permanent platform of negotiations.

  • Russian threats to increase military presence in Latin America in response to the Ukraine situation ring hollow among regional leaders and experts, reports the Associated Press. But even if talk of troop deployments is mostly bluster, Russia’s strategic buildup in Latin America is real, particularly in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, involving a mix of weapons sales, financing deals and intense diplomatic engagement. 

  • Russia lacks the cash to turn Latin America's authoritarian governments into full-fledged satellites, but is a source of short-term loans, limited investment, arms sales and diplomatic support for anti-American regimes, argues the Economist.

  • Russia and Cuba will continue developing their cooperation in the technical military sphere, the RIA news agency cited Moscow's ambassador in Havana as saying today. (Reuters)

  • Authoritarian and populist presidents in Latin America have been encouraged by a weakening of democratic values in the U.S., argues José Miguel Vivanco in an interview with the Financial Times. But, his main worry is the risk of democracy being undermined by the increasing frustration of Latin Americans at the failure of elected governments to deliver. 

  • "If Latin America is not capable of showing that in a democracy it’s possible to improve the living standards of the population . . . and to deliver quality public services . . . the conditions are there for the emergence of anti-democratic options," he said.

  • Dramatic action to slow deforestation in the Amazon by the international community should include a substantial increase in funding for conservation and concerted effort to create jobs in sustainable industries in the sub-region –one of the poorest in Brazil, according to a new Wilson Center Brazil Institute report.
  • U.S. border officials are preparing for as many as 9,000 border arrests per day by the northern hemisphere spring, which would be significantly larger than last year's peak, reports Reuters. Last year the U.S. Biden administration carried out a record-breaking 1.7 million border arrests.
El Salvador
  • A new installment of InSight Crime's investigation into MS13's business empire looks at how the streetgang governs virtually every aspect of daily life in the community of Las Margaritas, as it does dozens of others in El Salvador.
  • Journalists are increasingly enrolling in a Mexican federal protection program, while others are protected under parallel state programs. But these approaches haven't always succeeded in preventing deadly violence against reporters in the country: Seven journalists enrolled in the national program have been killed since 2018. Advocates say the application process can be arduous and time-consuming, and sometimes journalists are killed before completing it, reports the Washington Post. (See yesterday's briefs.)

  • "The treatment of the free and independent press cannot be protected if the citizens of a country don’t care. The only way there will be accountability for such attacks is if the public demands it," writes Katherine Corcoran in a Washington Post opinion piece.

  • The Indigenous township of Cheran in Mexico's Michoacan state has taken forest defense into its own hands, fighting against illegal logging that brings avocado plantations and criminal organizations in its wake, reports the Associated Press.
  • An armed group has attacked a United Nations convoy in southeastern Colombia, burning two vehicles but not harming any worker, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Argentine President Alberto Fernández announced today that his government reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund to restructure a $44 billion bailout. The agreement came as Argentina is due to make a payment to the IMF of more than $700 million. (Wall Street Journal

  • Argentina's Economy Minister Martin Guzman said in a news conference that under the deal the country would target reducing its fiscal deficit to 0.9% by 2024 and gradually end central bank financing to the Treasury. He ruled out an abrupt exchange rate devaluation, said the country would seek to have positive real interest rates and bring down rampant inflation. (Reuters)

  • "A new IMF deal without a commitment to reform and near-term budget balance would buy a little time. But it would not do much to boost growth or to win the confidence of investors," according to the Economist.
  • A Peruvian judge barred four executives from Spanish oil company Repsol SA from leaving the country for 18 months as prosecutors investigate the cause of an oil spill involving a tanker hired by the company, reports Reuters. (See Monday's post.)
Dominican Republic
  • Residents of the Dominican Republic's Haina industrial zone are increasingly sickened by toxic smoke from dozens of factories, reports Al Jazeera in a long-form piece.
  • Rio de Janeiro's latest government plan aimed at reclaiming favela areas dominated by criminal organizations mirrors the hardline police occupations that have long spurred police brutality and civilian massacres in the city's favelas, according to InSight Crime. (See Tuesday's post.)

  • Reduplication, a way of forming words in which an existing word or part of a word gets repeated, is common in Brazilian Portuguese -- the Economist delves into the (fascinating) linguistic particulars.
  • An innovative after-school program in Rio de Janeiro boosts students' performance in the classroom – and on stage -- Americas Quarterly.

  • Disney's Encanto animated film features a multi-generation Colombian household with magical powers -- "not so much a fairytale as a family saga with a sprinkling of magical realism," according to the Guardian.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Castro takes office in Honduras (Jan. 27, 2022)

Honduran president-elect Xiomara Castro took office today in an atypical ceremony that narrowly averted a political crisis within the country's legislature, where competing factions of lawmakers dispute authority over Honduras' Congress. (See Monday's post.) 

Lawmaker Luis Redondo of the Partido Salvador de Honduras (PSH), backed by Castro to head the Congress, led the Congressional session that started the swearing in ceremony this morning, and presented the presidential sash to Castro. (La Tribuna) In a meeting last night, Castro offered lawmaker Jorge Cálix a government post, aimed at dissuading him from disputing the leadership of the Congress with support of opposition lawmakers, though he didn't formally respond yet. (AFP)

For many, Castro's presidency and her promises to refound the country closes a cycle of democratic crisis that started with the coup against her husband, Mel Zelaya, in 2009, and further deepened by Hernández's irregularity-marked reelection in 2017, reports Confidencial HN. Indeed, in the ceremony today, Zelaya showed the audience his own presidential sash -- the last one worn by a "democratic president" according to the presenter. Hernández did not attend the ceremony. (Tu Nota)

Castro's swearing in today marks "the culmination of a remarkable rise to power that began just over 12 years ago when she led a massive protest movement in response to" Zelaya's ouster, reports the Guardian. Her victory "generated hope for a new era for women in the country with the highest rate of femicide in Latin America and some of the region’s most draconian laws with regards to reproductive rights."

Hondurans hoping to attend the inauguration lined up outside the stadium venue at 3 am this morning, reports El Heraldo.

While Castro avoided a scene of dual competing legislatures today, the crisis is far from over. Lawmakers from the Partido Nacional and Partido Liberal remain allies in efforts to destabilize the incoming government, reports Criterio. In a context of social exhaustion and rejection of political elites that propelled Castro's victory last November, a prolongued legislative political crisis could "translate to more social turbulence and growing migration," warned International Crisis Group's  Tiziano Breda. (Al Jazeera

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Honduras today to attend Castro’s inauguration. Her presence is a sign of the importance the White House is placing on finding a willing partner in Harris' task of finding the “root causes” of migration to the U.S. (NPR) An estimated 500 Hondurans leave the country each day in search of employment or to escape insecurity, reports ConfidencialHN.

Harris' "visit, and the hope that Castro’s government will resist the allure of authoritarianism and the dollars of drug cartels, underscores just how pervasive corruption in the region has become," reports the Washington Post

The Vice President of Taiwan William Lai is also at the inauguration, as the country angles to maintain its diplomatic relationship with Honduras, one of its few remaining allies in the region. (Reuters)

More Honduras
  • Among Castro's cabinet picks, announced this morning,  is former national police chief Ramón Sabillon, who Castro tapped to head the Security Ministry. It's a victorious return for Sabillon who fled Honduras under threat five years ago, and only returned to the country earlier this month. Sabillon made a name for himself as national police chief by capturing several of the country’s biggest drug traffickers – results that he says got him fired Hernández, reports Univisión. (Other cabinet picks: La Tribuna.)
Challenges ahead for Castro
  • "Castro has acknowledged on multiple occasions the country’s grave human rights crisis fueled by inequality, violence, and impunity, and exacerbated over the last two years by the pandemic and the devastating impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota," writes Amnesty International's Erika Guevara Rosas. "The new government will have to show great boldness and determination to address the causes and effects of the disastrous legacy left by the governments of the last decade, and the accumulated state abandonment of historically marginalized and oppressed communities, including the Indigenous and Garifuna Peoples, rural communities, women and girls, LGBTI+ people, and human rights and environmental defenders." (El Faro)

  • "The new Castro administration must focus on solving problems such as rule of law, reducing the processes needed to establish business and transforming them to online processes, strengthening public institutions, reducing times and costs for imports and exports, capacity building for our people, improving the health and education systems, improving the energy sector, as well as the national budget and reducing national debt." Juan Carlos Sikaffy, president of the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP), told the Latin America Advisor.

  • “The U.S. government should work with the incoming President to fulfill her promises to end corruption and to improve the lives of Honduran citizens,” Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group's co-director, said this week. (Al Jazeera)
News Briefs

  • Journalists in dozens of Mexican cities held vigils and protests on Tuesday night, one of the largest mass protests over the murders of media workers in recent years. The demonstrations followed the assassinations of three reporters this month, two in quick succession in Tijuana. (New York Times, Reuters, see Monday's briefs.)
  • The case of 39 migrants whose vessel capsized in crossing the Florida Straits from the Bahamas to the U.S. -- a passage survivors of previous crossings describe as  a nightmarish odyssey of vomit, sweat and fear." It is the latest humanitarian drama to expose the Covid-fuelled migration crisis gripping Latin America and the Caribbean, reports the Guardian.
  • The new wave of leftist Latin American governments share a focus on redistributive issues and favor a more active role of the state in the economy. But the commonalities bely profound differences on social issues, in which some governments are particularly progressive while others are aggressively conservative, writes Oliver Stuenkel in New Statesman.

  • The U.S. should increase financing and aid to the Caribbean to help the region recover from the pandemic and cope with the growing impact of climate change, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told Reuters in an interview. China has lent over $4 billion to Caribbean nations in the last 10 years, according to figures compiled by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. But borrowing from Chinese banks shouldn't be construed as a political statement, said Browne, as the conditions of those loans are more favorable than even those provided by multilateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund.
  • Venezuelans got a (very brief) chance to demand a recall of President Nicolás Maduro yesterday — but critics say the referendum conditions were impossible to meet: nearly 4.2 million people at a minimum would have to sign petitions for a recall within a 12-hour period at 1,200 electoral centers. (Associated Press)

  • For good measure, military and collectivos “guarded” the locations, particularly in the poor neighborhoods, to intimidate people against showing up, notes the Latin America Risk Report

  • The timeframe established by the electoral authority makes it impossible to exercise this constitutional right, reaffirming the weakness of democratic institutions in the country, according to a group of Venezuelan social and human rights organizations. (Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights)
  • On the day of Chile's December presidential elections, private bus companies refused to transport working-class voters to polls to help the right-wing candidate, reports Jacobin.
Dominican Republic
  • The Dominican Republic's tourism industry is booming -- even more than before the pandemic -- thanks to a national strategy of few entry requirements, focused on vaccinations and masks for locals working in hospitality, reports the New York Times.
  • A group of German, Austrian and Swiss immigrants has implanted an ideologically driven settlement in one of Paraguay's poorest regions, reports the Guardian. The gated community in Caazapá, dubbed El Paraíso Verde, promises the colony as a refuge from "socialist trends of current economic and political situations worldwide” – as well as “5G, chemtrails, fluoridated water, mandatory vaccinations and healthcare mandates."
Costa Rica
  • A Costa Rican dive center is training young people to do conservation work, such as seabed cleaning, reef monitoring, water pollution analysis, and underwater archeology, reports the Guardian.
  • U.S. consumers concerned about inflation have much to learn from Argentine residents, whose mindsets have been shaped by decades of high inflation inspiring strategies like bulk-buying non perishables, paying in installments, and frequently renegotiating salaries, reports the Washington Post. Most exhausting: "the loss of a sense of value," it's hard to judge what anything is worth.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

IMF pushes ES to back off Bitcoin (Jan. 26, 2022)

The International Monetary Fund is pushing El Salvador to backtrack on a reform that made Bitcoin legal tender last year. In a new report IMF directors "stressed that there are large risks associated with the use of bitcoin on financial stability, financial integrity, and consumer protection, as well as the associated fiscal contingent liabilities." Some IMF directors have also expressed concern over the risks associated with issuing bitcoin-backed bonds, referring to the president’s plan to issue a $1 billion, 10-year "Bitcoin Bond" this year. (CNBC)

Since El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as legal money three months ago, the crypto currency's plunging value has cost the national treasury up to $22 million worth of reserves, according to the vice president of Moody’s credit rating agency. Concerns over financial transparency linked to the country's adoption of bitcoin as legal tender have stalled a loan deal with the IMF. (Washington Post WorldViews)

The new report comes as El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele, a well-known crypto enthusiast, maintains his "buying the dip" philosophy with public funds. On Friday he purchased 410 bitcoin worth $15 million as the cryptocurrency's price plunged on Friday, according to Bukele. After its purchase on Friday, El Salvador held more than 1,500 bitcoins, according to CoinDesk. The president is a well-known crypto enthusiast and is known for "buying the dip." (Business Insider)

Bitcoin was touted as a way of helping facilitate remittances from abroad, a key source of funding for many citizens. But it has turned out to be a costly transaction, explains the Washington Post. In total, fees on both sides of the transaction can run between 7 percent and 9.5 percent, potentially higher.

News Briefs

  • Cuban authorities acknowledged for the first time yesterday that they are prosecuting more than 700 people who protested against the government last July, including 55 between ages 16 and 18. Authorities also disclosed that 25 minors under 16 faced penalties like internment in centers handled by the Ministry of Interior, and that 28 detainees between 16 and 18 are currently in jail, reports the Miami Herald.

  • Human rights groups, the U.S. government and the European Union have criticized the mass trials of the protesters, saying they lack transparency and that long jail sentences were disproportionate with the crimes committed, reports Reuters. Rights groups observing the process and advising those accused say prison penalties for dozens already sentenced, including for sedition, have ranged from four to 30 years. (See Jan. 17's post.)

  • Last year, Human Rights Watch accused the Cuban government of “systematically” abusing detained protesters, including children under the age of 18, notes Al Jazeera.

  • Cuban activist Berta Soler, who leads the Ladies in White protest movement, was arrested ahead of a regular demonstration in support of political prisoners, on Sunday, along with three other women. (AFP)
Regional Relations
  • Russia’s President Vladimir Putin discussed the “strategic partnership” and further coordination of “actions in the international arena” with Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel in a call disclosed Monday by the Kremlin. The call followed Russian threats of a potential military deployment to Cuba earlier this month. (Miami Herald, see Jan. 17's post.)
  • Member countries repeatedly raised concerns about claims of torture, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings taking place in Venezuela at yesterday's U.N. human rights session. Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez tried to deflect blame onto U.S. sanctions, which she said accentuated Venezuelans' suffering, and said the country has made progress in protecting the rights and freedoms of its population. (Miami Herald)

  • Ahead of this year’s periodic human rights review, Human Rights Watch has submitted a summary of human rights conditions in Venezuela with recommendations to restore the rule of law and implement reforms to protect rights. 

  • Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) announced last week that, after accepting three requests, it had approved a timeline for a presidential Recall Referendum. But the timeframe established by the electoral authority makes it impossible to exercise this constitutional right, reaffirming the weakness of democratic institutions in the country, according to a group of Venezuelan social and human rights organizations. (Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights)
  • Xiomara Castro will assume Honduras' presidency tomorrow. Outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández is widely expected to be indicted by U.S. prosecutors on drug trafficking conspiracy charges upon leaving office, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's far-right ideological mentor Olavo de Carvalho died at the age of 74 this week. A prominent coronavirus denier -- he went so far as to call it the “moronavirus” --, it was prominently reported that Carvalho died of Covid-19. Bolsonaro lamented the loss of “one of the greatest thinkers in our country’s history” and declared a national day of mourning, reports the Guardian. He was a deeply divisive figure, exalted by a segment of the right that viewed him as a clear-eyed philosopher, and despised by much of the left and the intellectual elite, reports the Associated Press.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard was searching yesterday for 39 people missing after their boat reportedly capsized over the weekend off Florida in a suspected human-smuggling venture departed from the Bahamas. (Washington Post)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Rio's "Integrated City" plan (Jan. 25, 2022)

Rio de Janeiro state governor Claudio Castro announced a new public security project aimed at improving services and safety in the state capital's favelas -- nearly a week after major police operatives occupied Jacarezinho and Muzema, the start of what authorities touted as an effort to wrest back control from the drug gangs and paramilitary mafias in city neighborhoods.

Castro announced the state would spend about $90 million in the coming weeks to address social problems in Jacarezinho and Muzema -- but the move caught everybody, including Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes, by surprise, reports AFP. Among the largest investments are funding for the construction of houses in the Casa da Gente program and lines of microcredit to help community members avoid predatory lenders. (Globo)

On paper the new project, dubbed "Integrated City" aims to improve conditions in the city's favelas, with much needed access to services, housing and mobility. In practice, experts say the program replicates past experiments in community policing without incorporating the lessons that led to their failure. Activists and experts particularly point to the lack of consultation with local communities as a key problem, as well as lack of coordination with the municipal government. They have also pointed to lack of transparency about how the program will be run. (See, for example, Open Society Foundations' Pedro Abramovay's interview with Globo News.)

A demonstration Jacarezinho denounced police abuses within the occupation operative, such as raids on houses without warrants, destruction of property, and confiscation of identity documents. (Brasil 247

"Until now, "Cidade Integrada" is nothing more than a speech in tweets and a mere police operation in Jacarezinho, like so many others, strategically launched in an election year," writes investigative journalist Cecília Olliveira, executive director of the Fogo Cruzado Institute in UOL. (See also, Carta Capital, for example.)

More Brazil
  • The case of a massive Bitcoin-based Ponzi scheme in Brazil, underscores the fast-growing appetite for cryptocurrencies in the country, where digital currencies present an attractive protection against devaluation and double-digit inflation, reports the Associated Press.

School Closures -- Americas Quarterly

Latin America had the world’s longest Covid-19 school closures. Americas Quarterly surveys the damage in a new special report, while exploring possible solutions.  More than 7 million Latin American children may grow up unable to read proficiently because of the pandemic, the World Bank says. Without urgent action, an entire generation may be left behind.
  • Despite grim statistics, a post-pandemic renaissance in learning is possible – the current crisis could encour­age a cycle of reforms to education more inclusive and more relevant to the needs of a changing, com­plicated world, writes Fernando Reimers in Americas Quarterly.

  • "Thoughtful investment in learning after the pandemic is a must for the region’s leaders," argues Susan Segal in Americas Quarterly.

  • Several initiatives launched in Argentina last year aim to prevent long-term regression in student learning. "A mix of new tools and old-fashioned persistence, the plans are wide-reaching, innovative and not especially ex­pensive to implement. As such, they may eventu­ally serve as a model for other countries across the Americas," writes Natalie Alcoba in Americas Quarterly.
More Education
  • Almost two years into the coronavirus pandemic, more than 635 million children globally remain affected by full or partial school closures, the United Nations said yesterday. In low- and middle-income countries, UNICEF said up to 70 percent of 10-year-olds could not read or comprehend a simple text, up from 53 percent before the coronavirus became a pandemic in March 2020. (New York Times)
News Briefs

  • Two moderate earthquakes shook southwest Haiti yesterday, killing two people, injuring dozens of students and damaging hundreds of homes. The quakes created panic in a region that was rocked by a powerful tremor that killed more than 2,000 last August. (Associated Press)
  • A political crisis in Honduras over who will lead the country's Congress -- the fight has pitted president-elect Xiomara Castro against dissident members of her own Libre party -- has "quickly altered the political atmosphere in Honduras, where the scars of the 2009 coup that removed Castro’s husband Manuel Zelaya from office remain," explains El Faro English. As of yesterday afternoon, "Honduras still had two parallel Congressional leaderships, both under suspicion of illegality, a sign that does not bode well for the stability for the first days of Castro’s presidency."
    (See yesterday's post.)

  • Jorge Cálix, the lawmaker selected to head Congress by dissident Libre party members in alliance with the Partido Nacional and Partido Liberal, suggested holding a new vote yesterday, in a session he would lead. (AFP)

  • Honduras is a case study on how U.S. clothing brands can be parasitic in their global search for cheap labor, reports the Guardian. "U.S. corporations and the U.S. State Department have worked together for decades to bring cheap garments to American consumers, framing job creation as a blessing for the Honduran economy while simultaneously engaging in political interventions that keep Honduran citizens poor."
  • A U.S. offer to loosen sanctions against Venezuela's government "is not indefinite" and could be reversed if the ruling party does not return to talks with the opposition, opposition leader Juan Guaidó said yesterday. (Reuters)

  • Opposition candidate Sergio Garrido's win in the Barinas governorship race earlier this month "changes the symbolic map of Venezuela’s internal diatribe," argues Ociel Alí López in Nacla. "In a race that proves taking power through the ballot box is possible, the radical opposition is the biggest loser." (See Jan 10's post.)
  • Five former paramilitary patrolmen were sentenced to 30 years each for the rape of five Maya Achi women in the early 1980s, during the country's brutal civil war. Yesterday's ruling was hailed as vindication for survivors who have spent years fighting for justice, reports the Guardian.
  • Slavery reparations from former colonial powers to Caribbean nations could protect the region from Chinese financing initiatives and infrastructure projects that could increase corruption, argues Kenneth Mohammed in a Guardian piece.

  • The tourist industries in several Central American countries are struggling to recover from the pandemic, because of hesitancy, many hospitality businesses and tourism companies are having to reinvent themselves, reports the Washington Post.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... 

Monday, January 24, 2022

Honduran Congress in crisis (Jan 24, 2022)

Honduran lawmakers brawled in the midst of a heated altercation among president-elect Xiomara Castro's allies over who should head Congress. Castro sought to install a lawmaker from the Partido Salvador de Honduras, an ally that helped Castro claim electoral victory last year. But a group of lawmakers from her Libre party refused, and allied with Honduras's most traditional parties to install a member of their own caucus to head Congress.

Lawmakers split into two sessions, each of which chose a different leader, an unlikely political crisis that will affect Castro's ability to govern.

The lawmakers said the appointment was aimed at protecting Castro's incoming government, but Castro called them traitors. Her husband and the head of Libre, former President Manuel Zelaya, responded by expelling the rebels from the party. The expulsion, if it stands, would reduce Libre’s congressional bloc to 38 out of 128 lawmakers, complicating Castro's ability to pass laws and appoint officials.

The rebellion strengthened Honduras' traditional parties -- the Partido Liberal and the Partido Nacional -- which supported the move, and will hinder Castro's ability to follow through on campaign promises that affect the country's highly-corrupt status quo, like bringing back international anti-corruption investigators and rooting out drug trafficking from the highest levels of the government and security forces.

The situation will likely impact the U.S. Biden administration's efforts to reduce migration from Central America -- the U.S. has increasingly looked at Castro as a likely ally for policies aimed at tackling factors that push people to move, particularly corruption. And if Castro fails to live up to Hondurans’ widespread desire for change, even more citizens could flee to the U.S. border because of violence and political instability, the International Crisis Group's Tiziano Breda told the New York Times.


Peru declares environmental emergency

Peru's government declared a 90-day "environmental emergency" in damaged coastal territories, on Saturday, after an oil spill that saw 6,000 barrels of crude oil pour into the sea, reports Deutsche Welle. Peruvian authorities say that this measure will allow for "sustainable management of the affected areas," through "restoration and remediation" work. (See last Thursday's post.)

The spill has already caused devastating environmental impacts in an area known for maritime biodiversity, reports the Washington Post. Dead seals, fish and birds have washed up on the shore covered in oil, while fishing activities in the area have been suspended, the government has said. Experts estimate that the amount of oil spilled could cover about 960 sq km of ocean. (La República)

Peru also asked for international assistance to respond to the spill, which has affected nearly 200,000 square feet of the country's Pacific coast beaches.  After an outcry over a cleanup operation widely seen as inadequate, Peru's government said on Thursday that it had asked experts at the United Nations and the U.S. National Response Team to help ensure proper remediation and compensation from Repsol, the Spanish oil company that operates the refinery where the spill occurred, reports the New York Times.

 Repsol said on Friday it had enlisted fishermen to help clear up the oil, but that cleanup efforts would take until the end of February, reports Al Jazeera.

News Briefs

  • Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric's cabinet announcement last week reflects both generational change and continuity with Chile's leftist history. A picture of the new Defense Minister Maya Fernández cradled as a baby by her grandfather, Salvador Allende -- - she will be in charge of the armed forces that led the 1973 coup that killed Allende -- symbolized for many in Chile and the region the hope sparked by the incoming government. (See Friday's post.)

  • Boric named several former student protest leaders to the new cabinet,  which includes at least six ministers under the age of 40 and has a majority of women. But Boric also reassured markets by naming Central Bank chief Mario Marcel as finance minister. (Associated Press)

  • The pluralistic cabinet, particularly the finance minister pick, is a huge signal, writes Brian Winter in Americas Quarterly.

  • "Boric’s choices for the most part reflect the desire to implement change that is real, profound, but also pragmatic and technical. There is little sign of political idealism or ideology in this cabinet," writes Robert Funk, also in Americas Quarterly.
  • It would be a mistake to interpret the rise of leftist-minded governments in Latin America as a return to the "pink tide" era, "in terms of policy pledges, this new ‘turn to the left’ is more mild and less transformative than that of the early 21st century," writes Pablo Stefanoni in IPS

  • "These are administrations of a ‘progressivism with lower intensity’, acting as they must in a context of continuing economic crises, declining regional integration, resurgent organized crime, and anemic voter loyalty." In addition, the region's governments face both political polarization and party fragmentation, "with the result that elected presidents are often unable to govern with parliamentary majorities. This, in turn, leads to increased instability." (IPS)
  • Brazil’s relations with China stand to improve greatly if former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is elected in October, former foreign minister Celso Amorim told Reuters. But a Lula administration would not seek a preferential relationship with China over and above its good ties with the United States, the European Union and Latin American neighbors, he said. Amorim said Brazilian foreign policy would be “pragmatic and not ideological” if Lula returns to power.

  • Rio de Janeiro's powerful gangs are increasingly evangelical -- known as "narco-pentecostals," many have incorporated Christian symbols into their ultra-violent trade, reports the Guardian.
  • Colombia's Constitutional Court was evenly split on whether abortion should be eliminated from the country's penal code. A ninth judge was granted recusal in the long-running lawsuit brought by a coalition of more than 90 pro-choice organizations, Causa Justa. The court agreed to appoint a new ninth judge for an eventual re-vote, reports Reuters.

  • Causa Justa asked for celerity in a decision -- the lawsuit was presented in 2020 and each year 400 women are legally prosecuted for attempting to access abortions, and an average of 400 more die due to unsafe terminations. (El Tiempo)
  • Nicaragua's government did not formally respond to the requests and steps taken by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to allow the arrival of a high-level delegation from the regional organization to negotiate the holding of new elections in Nicaragua, reports Confidencial. Almagro’s efforts are part of a Permanent Council resolution approved in December, in another effort by the regional body to use diplomatic channels and political negotiation to find a way out of the country’s socio-political crisis.
  • Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for supporters to take to the streets on Feb. 12 in peaceful marches against President Nicolas Maduro. He called for the country's political opposition -- which has been increasingly fractured in recent years -- to unite ahead of 2024's presidential elections, reports Reuters
St. Lucia
  • St. Lucia has not been able to hold a homicide trial for two years, because courtrooms are too small to safely seat a jury under Covid rules, even as the murder rate has risen to record levels. It is one of the most extreme examples of the damaging impact of the pandemic on access to justice globally, according to the Guardian.
  • Mexican journalist Lourdes Maldonado López was killed in Tijuana this weekend, the third reporter killed in the country in 2022. She had previously said she feared for her life, and was enrolled in a scheme to protect journalists, activists said. (BBC)

  • Mexico’s plan to favor its own state-owned electrical power plants and limit energy sales by private, foreign-built projects could affect U.S. investment in Mexico, reports the Associated Press.
  • In Guatemala, safeguards against corruption, impunity, and state violence are being dismantled by the politicians, elites, and military and some fear the return of an authoritarian state, reports Nacla.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Friday, January 21, 2022

Boric's feminist cabinet (Jan. 21, 2022)

News Briefs

  • Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric announced his cabinet picks -- it will be the country's first female-dominated cabinet, with 14 women heading ministries, out of 24. Prominent names include Izkia Siches in the Ministry of Interior, and Camila Vallejo in the Ministerio Secretaría General de Gobierno. (Cooperativa) The incoming president placated markets with a moderate pick of current central bank head Mario Marcel to head the finance ministry, reports Reuters.

  • Chilean Constitutional Convention commissions are piecing together proposals -- sometimes wildly divergent ones -- on how the government should be structured under a new magna carta, though there appears to be broad support for watering down the current "hyperpresidencialist" system. While the Frente Amplio's bid for a parliamentary democracy garnered little support, other options include strengthening the role of the vice president or creating a government ministry, who would lead efforts to create legislative coalitions. (LaBot Constituyente)
  • Colombia's Constitutional Court stopped government plans to resume aerial fumigation of coca crops, ruling that the Duque administration failed to consult local communities that would be affected. Rights groups and politicians in Colombia welcomed the decision, reports Al Jazeera.

  • The ruling has important implications not only for drug policy in Colombia but also for environmental and Indigenous rights, according to the Latin America Brief. Many other consultations in the region related to government projects occur simply as rubber-stamp processes rather than being democratic or binding.
  • U.N. agencies estimate that 400 people walk everyday from the Venezuelan border with Colombia towards Bogotá and other Colombian cities -- with very limited exceptions, including for families with children under 12 and pregnant women, no one provides Venezuelan walkers with transportation, notes Human Rights Watch in a call for Venezuelan exiles get to their final destination by bus.
  • Remittances to Guatemala reached record levels last year: Guatemalans living abroad sent more than $15 billion, an increase of 35% on the previous year, reports the Guardian. The country's dependence on remittances makes politicians loath to actually tackle the underlying causes of migration, a situation that favors the elite's status quo, argue some experts.

  • Guatemalan judge Erika Lorena Aifán Dávila says she is being attacked by the country’s Attorney General’s Office over her work on high-profile corruption cases, reports InSight Crime. "With many anti-corruption prosecutors now out of the picture, Aifán stands out as the first top-level judge targeted by forces within the Attorney General’s Office."
Regional Relations
  • Exclusive focus on Chinese motivations for engaging Latin America and the Caribbean discounts the agency and influence regional leaders exhibit, particularly in crisis situations, argue Wazim Mowla & Pepe Zhang in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, LAC leaders leveraged their asymmetrical relationships with China and other global actors to shape international discussions on inequitable vaccine access or to procure development assistance."

  • For example, critics of Barbados' recent transition into a republic "have given undue emphasis to the role of China, demonising Beijing while simultaneously belittling Barbados’s agency – in other words, an ugly cocktail of fearmongering and geopolitical mansplaining," argues Sebastian Shehadi in Investment Monitor.
  • Barbados PM Mia Mottley, who won a landslide second term this week, is just one of a raft of strong women across the Caribbean and South America tackling society’s most pressing issues, argues Mandeep Rai in the Guardian. She "has changed the face of democracy in the country. ... It is difficult to overstate what her commitment to collaboration across the region and internationally has done for Barbados ... Countries like Barbados are often not the protagonist, yet Mottley put issues such as the climate crisis and international development to the front on the world stage.
  • Covid-19 infections are reaching new peaks in the Americas with 7.2 million new cases and more than 15,000 COVID-related deaths in the last week, the Pan American Health Organization said this week. (Reuters)

  • U.S. companies are pillaging Latin America’s tech talent, reports Rest of World.
  • Argentine authorities asked Moscow to detain Iranian official Mohsen Rezai, one of six Iranians accused in the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. (La Nación)

  • Last week Rezai attended the inauguration of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, prompting condemnation from Argentina's foreign ministry. Argentina's Fernández administration came under fire from the political opposition, however, for sending a diplomatic representative to the event. (Buenos Aires Times)

  • This week Argentine foreign minister Santiago Cafiero met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and after the two countries asked the Organisation of American States to reactivate red alerts in all its member states in the Americas so that Interpol can take action against the six Iranians accused of the AMIA bombing. (Buenos Aires Times)
  • Honduran lawmakers are wrangling over who will head Congress during the next term, with a deep schism within the Libre party of president-elect Xiomara Castro. (La Tribuna)
  • Venezuela’s government is making a fresh attempt to open channels with international investors, reports Bloomberg. Advisers, led by top economic aide Patricio Rivera, held an hour-long call this week with at least two dozen bondholders and fund managers, presenting potential deals in the oil and tourism sectors and talking up new economic growth data.
  • Shortages of medical drugs in Mexico are the fault of the López Obrador administration's policies, according to the Economist.
  • Wildcat miners returned in droves to protected Indigenous lands in Brazil's Roraima state, just months after authorities shut down the illegal site, reports the Associated Press.

  • Amazon fishers in Brazil are cashing in on a booming yellow croaker maw industry fuelled by Chinese demand, but the threat of overfishing looms, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Elza Soares, one of the greatest Brazilian singers of all time, died at her beachside home in Rio at the age of 91. There was an immediate outpouring of tributes to the 91-year-old samba singer, who died of natural causes and had been preparing to release a new album and perform a series of shows, reports the Guardian.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Oil spill threatens Peru marine life (Jan. 20, 2022)

 Unusually high waves caused by the eruption of an underwater volcano in Tonga last weekend caused an oil spill at a refinery in Peru that the government qualified as an "ecological disaster" yesterday. The foreign ministry said that the oil spill had harmed animal and plant life in protected zones over a combined area of some 18,000 square kilometers around islands and fishing regions. 

Peruvian authorities say the spill inflicted “serious harm to hundreds of fishermen’s families” and had “put in danger the flora and fauna” in two protected natural areas. Peru has demanded compensation from the Spanish oil giant Repsol which operates the refinery where the spill occurred while a tanker was unloading crude. Peru’s prime minister, Mirtha Vásquez, told journalists that the Pampilla refinery “apparently” did not have a contingency plan for an oil spill. 

Environmental groups have criticized the company’s response, as well as that of the Peruvian authorities. The oil was spreading along Peru’s Pacific coast affecting seabirds, seagulls, terns, sea lions, otters and dolphins, Oceana Peru said in a tweet.

Juan Carlos Riveros, biologist and scientific director in Peru of Oceana said that the species most affected by the spill include guano birds, seagulls, terns, tendrils, sea lions and dolphins.

La Pampilla is Peru's largest refinery and supplies more than half of the local fuel market.

More Peru
  • Powerful figures in Peru are using the judicial system to intimidate and silence critical journalists, reports the New York Times. While the trend is regional, it is particularly strong in Peru, where defamation is a criminal offense.

  • The latest poll conducted by Ipsos and El Comercio shows that Pedro Castillo’s approval rating continued to slip at the start of this month. 33 percent of respondents approved of the President in January, while 60 percent disapproved -- Latin America Risk Report.
News Briefs

  • Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley won a second term in elections yesterday, in which her Barbados Labour party won all 30 seats, up from 29 in 2018. She gained international fame last year with an incendiary speech at COP26, urging leaders to stand up to the challenge of climate change. She also oversaw Barbados' transition to a full republic last year. (Guardian)
  • The situation in Haiti has reached a crisis point, as gang violence has surged across the country in the wake of President Jovenel Moïse's assassination last July. International observers are raising concerns that February 7 – the date Moïse's term would expire – could bring more violence and further complicate the country’s political transition, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Rio de Janeiro's state government launched a heavily armed police operation in one of Rio's largest favela's, Jacarezinho, the start of what authorities are touting as an effort to wrest back control from the drug gangs and paramilitary mafias in swathes of the city. Other communities will reportedly be occupied in the coming days, but experts are skeptical the approach will be effective, reports the Guardian.

  • Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said that reducing poverty and inequality should be prioritized over fiscal discipline. (Reuters)
  • Taiwan has paid for a lobbying contract to promote Guatemala with U.S. officials, Guatemala's government said this week. The move comes as China's efforts to strengthen its diplomatic foothold in Central America are advancing, notes Reuters.
  • Guatemalan authorities said they sent back more than 600 migrants -- mainly from Honduras and Nicaragua -- who entered the country through border posts with Honduras in a U.S.-bound caravan. (Reuters)
  • Ecuador will ask its citizens to vote in a 2023 consultation to reform its justice system, announced President Guillermo Lasso. Ecuador is in the midst of a surge in violence, and last year Lasso declared a state of emergency that deployed troops to combat crime. Lasso reiterated his criticism of decisions and sentencing by judges which allow immediate freedom for detainees, reports Reuters.
  • Eduardo Levy Yeyati plumbs Argentina's economic history for lessons applicable to its current predicament in Americas Quarterly.

  • Nacla looks at how lithium mining in Argentina threatens local communities.
Costa Rica
  • José Maria Figueres and Fabricio Alvarado, tied for first place in Costa Rica's presidential race, with Lineth Saborio following close behind, according to a new poll conducted by Opol Consultores. Costa Rica will hold presidential elections on Feb. 6. (Latin America Risk Report)

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing